23 March 2006 Edition

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International: GMO's - Regulation and resistance at Brazil conference

Frankenstein foods - do you know what you are eating?

Are you worried about what you eat? We are not just talking about healthy diets here, but the content of your food. Is your food free from Genetically Modified Organisms? And we are not talking only about what is on the label of your curry paste or brown sauce. Without knowing it, you and your family may be consuming Frankenstein foods, the full affects of which are still unknown.

European regulations are attempting to get to grips with the issues of labelling and consumer information. But for Europe, and those countries where legislation does not exist or is not implemented due to lack of resources, the Biosafety Protocol is an important protection.

On Monday, 13 March, the Third Conference on the Biosafety Protocol (MOP3) began in Curitiba, Brazil. This is the only international treaty that sets obligatory rules for the trade in Genetically Modified Organisms. The protocol makes clear that products from new technologies must be based on the precautionary principle, from the United Nation's Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. It states: "In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by states according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."

Esentially, the protocol aims to prevent multinational abuses of the lack of enforcement by national agencies and allows developing nations to balance public health against economic benefits. It will, for example, allow countries to ban imports of a genetically modified product if they feel there is not enough scientific evidence that the product is safe, and requires exporters to label shipments containing genetically altered commodities such as corn or cotton.

The Protocol came into force on 11 September 2003, and the main issue before the latest meeting was the question of how GMOs are to be labelled. Nearly all countries that have signed the biosafety protocol are in favour of a clear labelling that gives information on the GMO in a shipment. Industries and countries that haven't signed the Protocol however want a more vague label, saying that a shipment "may contain" GMOs - without even stating which GM crop that might be. Brazil and New Zealand favour this vagueness that would make the protocol impracticable. Brazil's President Lula changed his position from being anti GMO to supporting it. This resulted in major divisions and saw his Environment Minister missing the opening of the meeting, having to stay behind to clarify his country's position.

New Zealand seems to have set its mind on undermining consensus at the meeting and blocking the proper implementation of the Biosafety Protocol.

During the previous meeting of the parties to the Protocol in May, New Zealand vetoed rules that would oblige anyone exporting food and animal feed to specify, not just the intended content of shipments, but the actual content as it relates to living GMOs. At the time, New Zealand was one of just two countries - of 119 present - to object to proposals for requiring the actual content of shipments to be labelled. It was also the only one to question whether liability rules were required at all under the Protocol.

New Zealand's position to date appears to have been driven by concerns that labelling requirements would create additional costs for the country's conventional agricultural exporters. However these exporters are increasingly required to give assurances that food products have no detectable GMO content as a result of strong consumer resistance in major markets to GMOs of any form, and at any level. It is the potential "unintended" flow of GMOs across the border and into the environment and the food chain that is now the bigger issue for New Zealand.

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